November 18, 2012
My motto and the motto of the Civil Rights people I worked with was protest prayerfully and patriotically. We abhorred violence. I cannot recall a single instance when one of our group showed lack of discipline and fought. The brain is the most powerful organ for change, not the fist. The N.A.A.C. P., the Y.W.C.A and the A.M.E. church emphasized that belief and led the good intellectual fight for racial justice.
I lived my early life in two cities, East St. Louis and Alton. By far, East St. Louis had the superior education system. Younger people might have a difficult time believing that. It is not for me to judge, but some would say that the East St. Louis of the present came to its sad state by whites moving assets to Belleville and depleting resources of a once proud city.
My father Joseph took the family to live in Alton during the race riot of 1917 in East St. Louis. Over a hundred blacks were killed, including several lynchings. Father returned there alone. He and my mother separated, but it was amicable, not like today.
I recall when I was eleven: I, my sister Naomi, my mother and a Mrs. Davis and her baby, Myles, who lived across the street from us in Alton, would walk to the office of Dr. Davis, on Belle Street. There was a pool table in the office, and I babysat for Myles Davis by using the pool table as a crib. I can still hear him, see him, yes.
When things calmed down, I moved back to East St. Louis with Father and attended Lincoln High School, a superior school of the entire region. I am very proud to say, I got a job at the Y.W.C.A. of Alton, a place dear to my heart. I became its first black program director.
It was well known that the Olin-Mathieson company would not hire blacks, but I applied for a job and became the first black employee of that institution, working in research and handling records.
Back in the days of segregation, Alton was not overt in its discrimination. There were no separate facilities, just hostility and separation. The Klan was present but it was a secret presence. Schools were segregated, however. This was in the 40s, and my husband and I and our five children were affected by this, as black children were not afforded kindergarten.
We fell in with a group of friends, some of them folks you celebrate this night, and we determined to confront the Alton Board of Education. This was in 1945. J.B. Johnson was the superintendant. I was our spokesperson. I told the board that it was imperative to have kindergartens for black children. Dr. Johnson replied that there weren’t enough black teachers to implement such a plan.
My husband, Tillman, was adept at playing dumb to white audiences. We did this to imbue a sense of false security in our Caucasian counterparts. Tillman nodded sympathetically at Dr. Johnson, who must have supposed the matter was settled.
That night, I called my sister, Naomi, who had a government job in Washington, D.C.. She was also a teacher. I said, “Sister, there is no black teacher to spare. Your home town needs you.” She quit her job and appeared in Alton within days. That was my family; that was what we do.
We appeared before Dr. Johnson and offered him a teacher he could not now refuse. Kindergarten for black children became a reality. I joined the P.T.A. at my children’s first school, was bond issue secretary for the Alton P.T.A. Having established a foothold, we then petitioned to have a new junior high school built. Central Junior High School became a reality, a state of the art facility. Whether it was built as a panacea to keep blacks in one school or whether it was generosity of spirit, I will not judge. We acted prayerfully and patriotically and we got our school.
I should add that many African Americans, including teachers and preachers, were upset with us. They were afraid of losing jobs, of making waves. They were afraid. Our meetings were public, often held at the Y.W.C.A. or the Allen Chapel A.M.E. church. We would get on the phone at one in the afternoon and two hundred people might show up that night.
Our friends, the Baileys, the Killions, the Butlers, and other people of good will kept at it. We organized sit-ins to integrate the Grand and Temple movie theaters. We would hold our babies in our arms, a splendid tactic when one is sitting in a movie theater aisle. People were less inclined to show upset, the babies perhaps tempering their emotions. This protesting was done by both blacks and whites.
There were many Caucasian people of good will who belonged to the N.A.A.C.P. My family was close to six other families, both black and white. I am proud to say that my mother’s first cousin was also a cousin to the great Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch. Ralph, of course, was a U.S. diplomat and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Kennedy, the first person of color to be so honored. He was a member of President Roosevelt’s secret black cabinet which met regularly during the World War II. Ralph and I started writing to one another and learned about each other’s families. He visited Alton in the mid-sixties. There was a wonderful community event held in his honor. The Alton Evening Telegraph covered the event—antagonistically some have said, but it is not for me to say.
My youngest brother, Wesley, lives in Africa. He has an operatic voice and has sung with several groups. My brother-in-law, Robert Wilson, was an original Tuskegee Airman. As for me, I received a bachelor’s degree from SIUE in education and did some course work for a master’s, in late middle age.
I am the proud of the fact that the Y.W.C.A. honored my name with the Josephine Marley Beckwith Award, which awards “Future Leaders Scholarships” to promising students. I am also proud of my work with the Oasis Women’s Center.
I am ninety-eight. When I think of the dark times, the days of segregation, I feel pain constrict my chest. I prefer to connect with young people—this keeps me in the present. I am planning to be here for my one hundredth birthday.
I remain firmly committed to the philosophy of non-violence in the face of oppression and acting prayerfully and patriotically. I am not comforted that many of today’s young people are unaware of their roots, of those who gave a full measure of devotion to the cause of racial justice.
But I look forward—not to the past.